Poll: Canadians buying into biotechnology

People certainly care about where their food comes from, given the growing interest in local food and in supporting area farmers.

But a new poll shows they've mostly become unconcerned about whether food is genetically altered, supporting a growing belief harboured by many people in the farming sector.

Overall, Canadians' food interests and concerns have shifted radically, and outside of relatively small pockets of the population, their one-time preoccupation with modified food genes has fizzled.

In fact, the opposite effect has occurred. Canadians now go as far as to suggest governments support biotechnology, because they think it will lead to greater prosperity.

I recently became a part of the public affairs committee of an organization called BIOTECanada (www.biotech.ca), an unabashed lobby group for biotech interests.

I joined the group mainly because it's central to the sector, it affords its participants superb connections, and it has almost no representation from some of the biggest contributors of biotech-based advancements in Canada: that is, Canadian life-science universities.

BIOTECanada has commissioned a national survey for the past five years to take Canadians' pulse about the sector. This year, the exercise occurred in early September, and involved some 1,000 Canadians.

Given BIOTECanada's pro-technology bent, it's natural and even reasonable to be suspicious of a survey it commissions. But organizations such as this can't afford to colour the numbers.

BIOTECanada, for example, counts on support from some 230 companies involved in biotechnology across the country. Chinks in its credibility would mean lost members, which it can't afford. When it conducts a survey, the instrument must be administratively and scientifically sound. And that's not to mention the polling company. I'm sure this survey is lucrative, but the pollsters won't stay in business long if their output is questionable.

So, from a farming viewpoint, here's what the survey revealed.

First, the role of biotechnology in improving the nutritional value of food crops received an 8.28 score on the 10-point scale. Eight of every 10 respondents thought biotechnology would bring major or modest benefits to agriculture, compared to 16 per cent of those who thought biotechnology would bring major or modest drawbacks to agriculture.

And almost nine out of 10 respondents said biotechnology was very important or somewhat important for Canada's national economic prosperity. There's more at www.imagenenation.ca.

This points toward a warm and fuzzy feeling nationally towards biotechnology.

But biotech firms involved in the food sector are still not out of the woods. Although biotechnology's role in improving the nutritional value of food rated high, it was not held as dear by respondents as developing treatments for disease or developing renewable energy sources.

The irony is that agriculture can help address both problems. Food and health are closely related, and by genetically tweaking plants to produce enhanced quantities of helpful nutrients or pharmaceuticals, agriculture could indeed provide treatments — or better yet, prevention — for disease.

And there's no question many renewable energy sources are based in agriculture, particularly bio-based fuels. After all, someone has to grow the feedstocks for energy- or health products. And no one can grow crops better than farmers.

Last week, Philip Schwab, vice-president of industry relations for BIOTECanada, scrummed with my agricultural communications graduate-level students on a conference call. He claims people support agricultural biotechnology because they know it cuts down widespread pesticide use and helps reduce tillage.

As well, biotechnology is so pervasive nowadays that it's become commonplace, with 90 per cent of the soybeans and 80 per cent of Ontario corn being genetically modified to fight insects or weeds, or tolerate pesticides.

All this adds up to new levels of acceptance, says Schwab.

"If you're involved in agricultural biotechnology, you don't have to apologize to anyone," he says. "This poll shows Canadians support you."

About The Author

Urban Cowboy

Raising awareness and promoting dialogue about current food and agriculture issues.


Headshot of Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts is a faculty member in the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications program at the University of Illinois. As an agricultural journalist, he is the past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists and a lifetime achievement award recipient from the Canadian Farm Writers' Federation. His programs and research papers have been recognized nationally and internationally through awards from the Journal of Applied Communications, the National Agri-Marketing Association, the Association for Communications Excellence, and others.